By Tania Fisher
Thanks to Theater Pizzazz, there are now sections of my life that are filled with bright light from the shining star that is, Lainie Kazan. And although our relationship continues, these early segments remain forever embedded as the most life-affirming for me.
You see, I am a child of immigrants. Both parents were born in Calabria, Italy, where life is still simple and basic, and pleasures and spoils are few; where even, to this day, they have never quite recovered from the damage of WWII. My father arrived in Australia when he was 19, and my mother when she was just four (though not at the same time). So I was raised by people for whom English was a second language, the most basic of schooling was not even a possibility, and “theater” was only something they’d heard about. Hard work and making money were the only priorities on a very short list of life goals.
So for Italian immigrants raising not only a girl, but a girl who possessed a natural affinity for the arts; acting, poetry, song writing – an uphill battle filled with conflicting ideals was the norm.
Where does Lainie Kazan and a life-affirming section of time fit in to all of this? It is necessary to appreciate my humble beginnings and my personal journey that takes me from a small town in South Australia to standing in a legend’s dressing room of famed nightclub Feinstein’s/54 Below and feeling as though I belong there.
So to keep the details of the journey up to that point as short as possible, credit must be shared with the mysterious ways in which the universe works. A successful acting career for myself in Australia consisting of mainly TV shows, TVCs and films, producing and screen writing, and a longing to live in NYC. With that part of my dream accomplished, the second phase of the universe’s powers went into action; an Australian at a theater in Greenwich Village who happened to catch an audition of mine, recognized me, and through our subsequent developing friendship, exposed me to the world of theater reviewing. And in the interests of moving this story along, we now credit Theater Pizzazz with the rest that ensued.
I had ingratiated myself enough to my Editor impressing her with a review from a well known musician’s performance at The Carlyle. In our digital world, I have never met my Editor, and rarely heard directly from her unless I’d done something really good – and this was one of those times. The compliment included an offer that if I was to find a show I wanted to attend, I was to let her know and she would do her best to secure tickets for me. I had my wish ready to be granted from my genie, and I was careful to use it wisely.
As a fan of mostly film and TV (which is all I was able to be exposed to in a county where theater and the arts are of incredibly low importance), I had familiarized myself with, and to this day, enjoy watching the golden era of films. I then also became a fan of Columbo and Murder She Wrote. Not because I love a good murder mystery, although I do, but because I knew exactly who all of the older guest actors were. As an eight year old I would be the only child choosing to stay indoors screaming at the TV, “That’s Farley Granger!… that’s June Allyson!… that’s Ray Milland!… Don’t you realize who Angela Lansbury was?… That’s Lloyd Nolan!… That’s Van Johnson!… That’s Mary Wickes!” and so and so on… and so, it’s no surprise that I didn’t quite fit in with the other eight year olds who left me in my personal psychosis to go play outside in the fresh air.
Admittedly, at that age, Lainie’s name was not part of my pool of knowledge, but I knew her face, and as time passed I kept seeing her in other TV shows and other movies. I just knew of her but didn’t really know her. It was during one such lazy afternoon of watching a Columbo episode (“Make Me a Perfect Murder” 1978) that I recognized the young actress. (Lainie was also in an episode of Murder She Wrote, “Crimson Harvest” 1994). As is my custom, I began to Google and read Wikipedia and learn all about her. The information seeped into my brain and trickled through my veins as though it was knowledge I should have always had that my mind and body was only now just being replenished with. Lainie Kazan. Now I could put the name to the face and be like everyone else in the know. And now I knew what to ask my genie for. Feinstein’s/54 Below – there she was. A show coming up in March of that year, 2019. My wish was granted.
I even remember preparing for the evening. I took a nap in the afternoon so that I would look refreshed for my photo. Oh yes, I was determined to meet her and have a photo with her. I don’t do anything by halves. I spent longer than usual in the bathroom, channeling a 1960s Ms. Kazan and getting my hair as big as it would go, and paid extra attention to my eyeliner. I subsequently arrived with only minutes to spare and was ushered through the crowd right up to the front center table; so close I could touch the stage. Heads were turning in my direction; I assumed it was due to curiosity of this last-minute-arrival person being escorted to the front, and possibly my hair.
I introduced myself to the other people at the table and proceeded to ask them why it is that so many people just seem to love Lainie Kazan? I wanted to get the feel from her audience and her fans, to somehow put the ambience into words for my review. I made a little small talk to a lovely lady sitting to my left, when I caught the eye of an older woman at the other end of the room. This woman now rose and was approaching me. She looked right at me and said, “Hello, are you Jennifer?” I smiled politely and said “No.” But she insisted, “You’re not Jennifer Bena?” The comic actor in me couldn’t resist. I produced a facial expression suggesting I was thinking about it for a moment, then shook my head and admitted, “No. I’m really not.” The woman still didn’t seem to believe me, but smiled politely and left. Mistaken for Lainie’s daughter? Yup, it must have been the hair.
The lights dimmed. She’d arrived. Had no one else seen? There she was, off to the side of the room, in a dark corner. She was watching the large screens that were introducing her via a montage of bits of film footage from a lifetime of amazing performances. I’d done my research – thorough research. I knew instantly just from the four second visual of each, knowing which was which – that’s from The Dean Martin Show, that was from the Frank Sinatra film, that was from Will & Grace, that was from The Nanny, that was from My Big Fat Greek Wedding – there were sighs and exuberant cheers for each and I scribbled (hopefully legible) thoughts and references in my notebook all the while keeping one eye on the screen and one eye on Lainie. It was time. The spotlight shone on her. Then everyone else knew where she had been standing. She belonged to all of us now. My heart pounded, and I felt energized and exhausted at the same time as I left my body to witness myself experiencing this dream come true moment. It was real. I was here. All at once I was just that kid from a small town from a far away land, sitting in the front row of an infamous NYC night club, inches away from someone I’d watched on my TV screen for most of my life.
I was spoiled that night. Ms. Kazan had made direct eye contact with me throughout, and even during her talking moments between songs, she responded when I jokingly offered her something to eat from our table. She was so natural and authentic. Those words were going to find their way into my review. As she took her (very long) curtain call I somehow mustered the courage to stop clapping and instead reached out my hand to her, which she took. We locked eyes and I was holding Lainie Kazan’s hand. Magical.
I cleaned up my running mascara as best I could, then noticed where I could find her to approach her after the show. As I waited behind other fans, I saw the nice lady who’d been at my table and motioned her to cut in front of me so she could have her chance too, while I stood there regretting wearing so much eye makeup and pondering how my hair had managed to collapse. By the time I reached my one-on-one moment with Lainie she was a little worn out, but remained charming and gracious, just like a real star should. She said, “I gotta sit down!” So she placed herself on a stool behind her. I didn’t lose my gumption and explained who I was and even told her about being mistaken for her daughter, to which she quickly quipped back at me, “Oh my daughter’s beautiful!” I wasn’t too crushed and saw the humor in the line that I would regale many times over when describing this event to my friends. I got my photo and left 54th Street smiling all the way home, feeling exhilarated and grateful.
It was a couple of weeks later, sitting in sweat pants in the corner of my bedroom at my desk, noticing an email from my Editor. I had been cc’d in on it – it was a response to Scott, Lainie Kazan’s assistant, advising of my email address and asking me for my mailing address. Lainie had read my review and loved it so much that she wanted to write to me directly and was asking me for a hard copy of it so she could frame it! Not being the most athletic person, I somehow managed to pull myself back up to the chair I had just fallen out of. I took a deep breath, and re-read the entire email, and prayed for my wits to come back into my possession. I thankfully replied professionally and politely. The next day came another email, this time from Lainie Kazan herself. I held on tightly to my chair to keep my balance this time. The universe once again weaved itself into my destiny, and I was washed over in a cool calmness that allowed me to both think and write from my heart with honesty and from my own authenticity. I was able to be completely at ease and be myself and said exactly what I had wanted to say about how I felt about Lainie, to Lainie herself. It was a good lesson in remaining true to yourself and relying on yourself in really important moments, because Lainie and I continued to exchange sincere and lovely emails back and forth after that.
Returning home late one night soon after, exhausted and in bad need of a shower, I saw the envelope waiting for me. The most beautiful letter I have ever received was inside. It expressed gratefulness, and an appreciation that I had really seen and understood this industry legend.
Later she sent me an autographed photo and three CDs, each signed to me personally. I framed the letter and created a space for it on my shelf, beside Jerry Lewis, and even took a photo of this and sent it to her, telling her she was “in good company.”
Months passed and we remained in communication, hoping to catch up in person when she was next in town. Finally another Feinstein’s/54 Below appearance would bring her back to the east coast in November. She generously provided a complimentary ticket for me. I had also been in communication with her assistant, Scott, who was going to be there that night. I took my notebook with me too, just in case.
Lainie had woken up that morning with laryngitis. Although she could speak, she was not able to sing as many songs as she normally would in her shows. So the show format was changed at the last minute to become a reduced performance of favorite songs interspersed with an unscripted live on-stage interview, sharing personal stories. It was Scott who was doing the interviewing on stage and a surprise guest lifted out from the audience in the form of the fabulous Renée Taylor, was memorable.
I ended up providing a review for this show too.
Once the show ended I patiently waited to let the fans have their time with both Lainie and Scott, who was just as gracious and charming. He was patiently remaining attentive to an ardent admirer talking to him while I stood in his eye line. When she left, Scott approached me. “You’re Tania?” I replied “Yes! Hi Scott!” as we both went in for a big hug while he warmly expressed, “I knew you’d be a hugger!” It’s true. I am. We continued to chat and made our way to where Lainie was and both stood back patiently while the last lingering friends and fans began to thin out. When everyone else had cleared out Scott jumped ahead and leaned into Lainie’s ear saying, “This is Tania Fisher who wrote the review.” Lainie’s face beamed and her arms outstretched as she exclaimed, “Tania!” and embraced me. She held me tight and rocked me from side to side as I whispered in a sing-song way into her right ear, “I love you Lainie. I love you.”
Scott ordered a couple of drinks from the bar and handed a martini to me, asking me to hold it. It was Lainie’s. Wow. We even have the same favorite drink! There were a couple of other people around us as we made our way through the back secret door into the bowels of 54, and we paused for a moment in a dark hallway while the manager spoke across me to Lainie whose arm I was now holding to support her. Further along down the hallway Lainie turned to me asking if the drink I’m holding is hers. I confirmed that it was and passed it to her. She took a few sips then handed it back to me as we made our way into the back stage elevator.
I get to see the dressing rooms and the dining area and lounge area set up for the talent, and enter Lainie’s dressing room where she and Scott and I chat for a bit about the possibility of working together on some forthcoming projects. I don’t miss the opportunity to take another photo and be sure not to overstay my welcome.
I am escorted back to the elevator by one of Lainie’s dearest friends, and then a staff member shows me the way back out to the street. Although I lived in walking distance from West 54th Street, I took a cab home; not just because my feet were killing me, but because I couldn’t possibly breathe and walk at the same time with my mind boggling with too many thoughts at once. Thoughts of how I have in the past stressed over finances, worried about career choices, consumed myself with concern over this and that, and yet here I was, this child of immigrants from a small town in a far away land, this kid who stayed indoors to watch old black and white movies, this person who finally made America her home, having been handed this incredible life-affirming proof all because of Theater Pizzazz, and getting to have a life that now included the great, Lainie Kazan.
254 W 54th St, New York, NY 10019